Written by Jimmy Sangster and Michael Syson
Directed by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Ralph Bates, Peter Cushing
US Release Oct. 1974
RT 94 min.
Home Video Anchor Bay
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
The final film in Hammer’s original psychological thriller cycle, Fear in the Night, is a return to form for the studio. The movie has more in common with earlier entries like Scream of Fear than it does with later productions like Straight on Till Morning. This is probably due to two reasons. Not only did Jimmy Sangster write it; he originally wrote it nine years earlier in 1963. (The final version of the script was re-written by Sangster and Michael Syson.)
Sangster also directed it, his third and final time for Hammer. (His only other directorial gigs were an episode each of the American television dramas Cannon, Banacek and Faraday & Company.) There’s nothing particularly notable about the direction. The prolific writer exercised his creative talents on the page instead of the screen. The strengths of Fear in the Night definitely lie in the structure of the story as well as the story itself…
…and the appearance of Peter Cushing, of course. He plays a key character, Michael Carmichael, the headmaster of a remote boarding school. He’s seen through the eyes of Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson), a naïve 22-year old woman who has just married Robert Heller (Ralph Bates) and moved with him to a cottage on school grounds. She’s damaged goods, as we gather from occasional flashbacks to her sessions with a psychiatrist in London.
While packing to leave for her new home, Peggy is attacked by someone with an artificial arm. We know this because it falls off during the attack. It then becomes a typical case of the husband not believing it happened, but believing that she believes it. “Of course they will (catch him),” Robert tells her. “You’re safe now.” Except that she’s not… she’s attacked by the same person inside her new home. This is about the time we learn the Headmaster Carmichael has… an artificial arm!
I was suspicious of Robert almost from the start. For one reason, well, it is Ralph Bates. For another, he’s not particularly excited about returning to school for classes. He tells Peggy he doesn’t like work of any kind and would rather spend all his time with her. He also mentions that he wishes he had Carmichael’s money. Ding, ding, ding! If Peggy were not so distracted by her own emotional issues, I wonder if she’d would have gotten the clues.
If the story hasn’t sounded familiar yet, it should by now. We have the young woman with a history of nervous breakdowns in danger and we have the scheming of, and deception by, someone close to her. It’s not as simple as that, though. Like the best of the Hammer thrillers, it’s full of twists and turns, some that aren’t surprising, but some that are. Many of these are revealed in the “big house,” the main building for the school, with its classrooms, dining hall, gymnasium and upstairs dormitories.
Carmichael’s wife, Molly (Joan Collins), appears about midway through the movie’s 94-minute running time. I was also suspicious of her. For one reason, well, it is Joan Collins. For another, she wears her disdain for Peggy on her sleeve. She makes catty comments about her being Robert’s “child bride,” yet I wonder how much younger than Carmichael her character is supposed to be? (Collins was a youthful looking 39-year old at the time, but Cushing was 20 years her senior.)
Not only is Fear in the Night a throwback with its story, but also with it’s style. In a reversal of late-Hammer trends, there is no nudity. A couple years later, the studio’s assembly line would crawl to an unceremonious end, so I’m glad this was their last movie in this subgenre. It’s a sentimental reminder of what Hammer once was, leaving us feeling nostalgic rather than regretful. If you don’t have a particular attachment to Hammer or its history, it’s also just a fun movie.